Archive for May, 2013

Stars of Vaudeville #707: Don Ameche

Posted in Broadway, Circus, Hollywood (History), Italian, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today’s is the birthday of Don Ameche (Dominic Amici, 1908-1993). Ameche got his start performing in college theatricals in his native Wisconsin. From here he traveled with a stock company in a play called “Excess Baggage”, and then toured big time vaudeville in an act starring Texas Guinan. (Guinan later let him go, saying he was “too stiff”, which sounds about right).

Not long after (1935), the dashing, gentlemanly Ameche began to get cast in Hollywood movies. Notable films included One in a Million  (1936), In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Swanee Riverin which he played Stephen Foster (1939), Lillian Russell (1940), Down Argentine Way with Carmen Miranda (1940), and the original Heaven Can Wait (1943).

He was also a major radio star, guesting on most of the popular shows of the day, and co-starring with Frances Langford in the sit-com The Bickersons. He also appeared on Broadway a half dozen times, most notably in the original 1955 production of Silk Stockings. 

From 1961 through 1965 he hosted the NBC television program International Showtime, a show in which he gave play-by-play commentary on European circuses. He continued to act in television and films throughout the films, although work started to dry up in the early 70s. And then (as most readers know, I’m sure) his career enjoyed an impressive third act, when he starred in several successful films, Trading Places (1983), Cocoon (1985), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Coming to America (1988), Things Change (1988), Cocoon: The Return (1988), Corrina, Corrina (1994) and many others.

At any rate, today seems to be a big radio day (see today’s earlier Fred Allen post.) I’m a big fan of The Bickersons, I think it’s quite rudely hilarious, and I’m kind of surprised no one has remade it, although in a certain way ALL modern sit-coms are riffs on The Bickersons. But here’s a sample.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville #19: Fred Allen

Posted in Comedy, Fred Allen, Hollywood (History), Irish, Jugglers, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by travsd

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Originally Posted in 2009. 

With his dour, doleful expression and his deadpan delivery it was perhaps inevitable that Fred Allen would make his greatest permanent mark in radio. On film, he strikes one as being aloof and uncommitted to the character he is playing. Before he went before either the camera or the microphone, however, he achieved what might have been thought impossible for an introverted, bookish, rather homely looking man – he conquered vaudeville. It is a testament to the audience, or to Allen – perhaps both – that this intelligent, subtle man became famous at all.

He was born John Florence Sullivan in Cambridge, Massachusetts on this day in 1894. His mother died when he was three years old. His father was an alcoholic bookbinder who normally left him in the care of an aunt. The elder Sullivan did teach the boy the trade of bookbinding, securing a position for him at the Boston Public Library at age 14. Unlike almost all other vaudevillians (and despite having to work hard at part-time jobs to earn his keep), young John Sullivan was an achiever at school. He attended the Boston High School of Commerce for Boys, where he got good grades, did athletics, and edited the school paper. This school gave him his first opportunity to perform, an assignment in salesmanship class to tell a humorous story. One can only imagine the chagrin of the teacher, who’d requested only a mild anecdote to put customers at ease, when he received the acid and flowery tour de force John Sullivan no doubt turned in.

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Strangely, juggling was Allen’s first love. He got a book on the subject, began practicing at odd hours and carefully studied the techniques of every juggler who came to town. After juggling in the library’s annual amateur talent show, he received so much encouragement that he resolved for once and for all to go into show business.

He started at the bottom rung, at an Boston Amateur Night run by a man named Sam Cohen. He was only 17 years old. He did so well that soon he was substituting for Cohen as Master of Ceremonies. Another opportunity arose when a a friend named Paul Huckle asked him to substitute for him at Keith’s National, in an evening supposedly presenting “professional talent new to Boston.” Performing as Fred St. James, he was a sensation, although the audience reportedly thought he was a parody of a vaudeville act.

Realizing his is only a mediocre act in a field where superlatives are everything, he decided to bill himself as “The World’s Worst Juggler”, because he knew he would never be the best. A performer named Griff was influential. The man was a juggler, but comedy was the most important part of the act. Forthwith, Allen began to amass potential material for his comedy in notebooks, a procedure with which he worked until his dying day. He increased the amount of monologue in his act,and bookings immediately picked up.

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Moving to New York, he now billed himself as “Freddy James, the World’s Worst Juggler.” A three day booking at Keeney’s Brooklyn on his very first day was misleading. Weeks went by without subsequent employment. Just as he was making up his mind to go home, he got a three week booking on the Poli Circuit in New England.

Upon returning from the tour, “James” met a Loew’s booker named Mark Leddy who finally started him on his way. The act had evolved into a sort of parody of vaudeville. “James” would mock other acts, by doing bad ventriloquism, a bad song on banjo, and of course, bad juggling . It is readily apparent that such an act was light years ahead of its time. Such “ironic” entertainment doesn’t really become widespread in the U.S. until the late 1950s and even then it is considered subversive (Bob and Ray, Nichols and May, Lenny Bruce, even Mad Magazine). Not unil the 1970s and 1980s would it become mainstream with Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and David Letterman’s various shows). There can be little doubt that for a long time, folks just didn’t “get” Fred Allen’s sense of humor, which accounts for his ten year crawl to the top.

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In 1914, he embarked on a tour of Australia. As W.C. Fields had done, he coped with the long months of loneliness by reading every book he could get his hands on. By 1917, his verbal faculties were so highly improved that they play an increasingly important part of his act. After breaking in a new act on the Pantages Circuit, he changed his name to Fred Allen so he could work the big time. (The catch 22 in those days was that the big time houses wouldn’t book any small time acts. You would have to invent yourself anew each time.)

The new act debuted at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre in 1918, but a single pan in Variety sent him tumbling back to small time. (Allen insisted it was because he refused to buy an ad). Over the next four years, Allen’s career would see-saw heartbreakingly between big time and small time.

By 1921, he was relying almost entirely on his skills as a monologist, however, and the act was getting stronger all the time. The juggling shtick was abandoned. A Keith booker caught this new act and installed him at the Colonial and the Alhambra – prestige dates.

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By the mid-twenties he had graduated to Broadway Revues: e.g., Snapshots of 1922The  Passing Show of 1922Frank Fay’s FablesVogues of 1924Greenwich Village Follies (1924), The Little Show (1927) while continuing to headline in vaudeville. The Little Show, which co-starred Clifton Webb and Libby Holman, was a huge hit and helped make Allen a star.

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Early attempts at film in the 20s and early 30s revealed Allen’s limitations as a performer, but in radio, his verbal acuity found its perfect medium. Along with Jack Benny (with whom he created broadcasting’s first running “feud”) Allen became radio’s top comedian. His radio career spanned 17 years, with The Linit Bath Club Revue (1932), Town Hall Tonight (1934), and finally The Fred Allen Show (1939-50), as popular for its cast of regulars as it was for Allen himself. Among the most popular denizen’s of Allen’s Alley, were Titus Moody (a stereotyped Yankee) and Senator Claghorn (on whom Mel Blanc modeled  Foghorn Leghorn). The most astounding fact about Allen’s long-running series is that he wrote nearly every episode by himself – a feat surely unequaled in broadcasting history. Then, in 1949 the inevitable happened. The Fred Allen Show was famously clobbered in the ratings by a game show called Stop the Music. The disparity of the two shows, and the way Allen’s program was abruptly dropped is often used as a benchmark in the descent of American culture, a way station on the way to the sewer, as Gilligan’s Island, Jerry Springer and Jackass, each – for some – later marked low points.

Allen’s time on television was brief and undistinguished. It’s one thing to listen to a sour, gravelly-voiced, cynical pessimist say nasty but funny things week after week. It’s another to look at a puffy-eyed , pale-skinned, tobacco-chewing old man doing the same thing. Nevertheless, Allen did persevere for several years, first as a host of the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950 ( a chore he shared with Ed Wynn, Martin and Lewis, and Eddie Cantor on a rotating basis). He hosted Chesterfield Sound Off Time 1951-52, this time alternating with Bob Hope and Jerry Lester. His last gig was as a panelist on What’s My Line. He gave the world two great books Treadmill to Oblivion (1955, about his years in radio) and Much Ado About Me (1956, about his early years), before giving up the ghost of massive heart failure in 1956.

Now, there are plenty of tv clips of Fred Allen on youtube, but the whole point of Allen is radio, that’s the medium in which he was a genius. So we attach a clip of his radio show. As yesterday was Mel Blanc’s birthday, I thought it would be cool to listen to a clip of Allen with cast member Kenny Delmar in his character Senator Claghorn, which, as we said above, was the inspiration for Foghorn Leghorn:

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville #706: Mel Blanc

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Latin American/ Spanish, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Melvin Jerome “Mel” Blank [original spelling] (1908-1989). Everyone knows him as voice-over actor of all the classic Warner Bros cartoon characters: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzalez, Pepe LePew, Sylvester and Tweety, etc. In later years, Blanc also did Hanna-Barbara characters such as Barney Rubble on The Flintsones and Mr. Spacely on The Jetsons.

But today we want to hit the vaudeville angle. A San Francisco native, Blanc dropped out of high school to conduct local big bands and perform comedy in small time vaudeville theatres in the Pacific Northwest (the area known by vaudevillians as “the death trail” due to its long jumps between towns). In 1927, he broke into radio, and his talent for doing many voices quickly became noticed, and he rapidly worked his way up the rungs from local radio to national shows like The Joe Penner Show on CBS and The Jack Benny Program on NBC. He was to remain a staple of Benny’s radio and television programs until it went off the air in 1965, usually in highly anticipated cameos, such as the train station announcer, whose last departure town was always “CUCamonga”, and “Sy, the Little Mexican” (the routine that went “Si…Sy…Sew…Sue. See below for a variant of that one). He also made frequent appearances on other hit radio programs such as The Abbott and Costello Show and Burns and AllenHis work in animation began in 1937.

Here’s one (of probably dozens) of the Sy routines with Benny. It’s not politically correct but neither was vaudeville.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville #164: Stepin Fetchit

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2010. 

A problematic figure in these annals, Stepin Fetchit is much maligned nowadays for having played a shiftless, shuffling, mumbling, lazy no account servant in Hollywood movies throughout the 1930s. On the other hand, he’s one of the first African Americans to get his foot in the door — even if the foot was wearing a hobo shoe. Mel Watkins, in his terrific book about African American comedy On the Real Side, postulates that the comedian’s character was actually a brand of subversive sarcasm, an exponent of a coping strategy that dates back to slavery days. Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, born on this day in 1902) was the first African American to get  screen credit and the first to make a million dollars in show business.

At the age of 14, he’d run off to join an all-black minstrel show. Later, he formed a two man act with a friend name Ed Lee called “Skeeter and Rastus — Two Dancing Fools from Dixie”, and they worked the black vaudeville circuits. Gradually, the act evolved and they became “Step ‘n’ Fetchit”. When his partner left the act, Perry kept the name for himself. He got his first film role in 1925, reportedly by remaining in character before, during and after the audition, a strategy he was reported to have used frequently in order to outsmart his directors and producers. He was in some of the biggest hits of the 1930s, including several with his friend Will Rogers and one with Shirley Temple. He was also highly influential: performers of the era who emulated include Matthew “Stymie” Beard from Our GangMantan Moreland, and Willie Best (a.k.a “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”).

By the 1940s, however, the Hollywood parts were few and far between (although he made numerous low budget all-black pictures) and he was forced to declare bankruptcy). It was back to the chitlin circuit and nightclubs for his last few decades. I will say this: you can see him in the amazingly weird 1974 picture Amazing Grace starring Moms Mabley, Slappy White, Moses Gunn and Butterfly McQueen. I’m warning you right now: I consider it well worth watching, but you just may consider it far too weird. Stepin Fetchit suffered a stroke in 1976 and spent his last few years in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, passing away in 1985.

Here he is with Hattie McDaniel in a scene from Judge Priest.

 

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville #18: Ben Bernie, “The Old Maestro”

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2009

Personality was everything in vaudeville. Pretty music aside, a major factor in the success of a band was a colorful and entertaining bandleader. Bernie and others we’ll meet frequently developed their own catchphrases, many of which outlived the fame of their originators. You may not have heard of Bernie, but you’ve certainly heard the phrase “yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.” That one was his.

Born Bernard Anzelvitz on this day in 1891, he set out to be a serious musician. He debuted as a concert violinist at Carnegie Hall at age 14. Apparently that didn’t go anywhere, for in 1910, he teamed up with accordionist Charles Klass to from the vaudeville act “the Fiddle-Up-Boys”. In 1915 he formed a more successful partnership with Phil Baker. Baker played the accordion and gradually added more and more jokes until it was essentially a comedy act. They parted ways in 1923, with Baker going to even greater fame on stage, screen and radio.

Bernie was more interested in music then laughs. In ’23, he formed Ben Bernie and All the Lads, which had a standing gig at the Roosevelt Hotel for the next six years. In the early 30s, the band toured vaudeville with Maurice Chevalier. For a long time, Oscar Levant was Bernie’s piano player. Bernie’s radio show was a fixture on CBS from 1931 until he passed away in 1943.

Bernie is responsible for Jack Benny’s stage name. In 1921, the comedian (whose real name was Benjamin Kubelsky) began calling himself Ben K. Benny. He soon receieved a “cease and desist” letter from Bernie’s lawyers – too similar. His music may have been sleepy and gentle, but in show business you played hardball. Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.

Here he is with his orchestra, playing my grandmother’s favorite song, “Sweet Georgia Brown”

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville # 705: Little Jack Little

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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There are two Little Jack Littles in the annals of show business:. One is a dwarf comedian who worked in burlesque (unfortunately not the subject of today’s post). At all events,  today is the birthday of the singer, songwriter and bandleader Jack Little (John Leonard, 1899-1956). British born, he was raised in Iowa, where he first started playing with bands while in college. By the early 30s he had made his way to the Palace, nightclubs, radio and recording contracts. Some of his songs include “A Shanty in Old Shanty Town”, “Jealous” and “I’ve Always Called You Sweetheart”.

Listen to him croon right now (along with the Do-Re-Mi Girls)

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Stars of Vaudeville #704: Mademoiselle Gabrielle

Posted in Circus, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Mademoiselle Gabrielle (1884-?) is one of the very few human oddities known to have performed in vaudeville (as opposed to circuses, sideshows, and dime museums, although she certainly performed in those types of venues as well). Born completely legless in Basel, Switzerland, she first exhibited herself at age 16 at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Her success there opened the door to America, where she performed at Dreamland Circus Sideshow in Coney Island, and Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey, billed as the “Half Woman”. Beautiful of visage as well as of figure (assisted by the then ubiquitous corset), she accentuated these aspects, dressing in fine clothes and adornments. And this is what made vaudeville (theoretically more refined and polite) possible for someone like Gabrielle.

If you’re a vaudeville buff already then you can probably guess which theatre hired her. It was Hammerstein’s Victoria in 1912. Unfortunately, the date ended in acrimony when Gabrielle broke her contract.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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